By Isabel Terry

The strange and difficult times we find ourselves in raise so many questions around what the future might look like. In the short-term there are immediate uncertainties around when lockdowns will be lifted and businesses re-open. But there are also longer-term questions around how industries and economies may recover.

Whilst the implications for restaurants are difficult to predict, this doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t think about the potential impacts. Planning for any eventuality is critical to getting business up and running again so below are some considerations for what eating out might look like post-pandemic.

Short-term:

  • When restaurants and cafes are able to re-open, there may well be restrictions in place around how many customers can be served at any one time. In Hong Kong restaurants are forced to limit the number of guests per table to four and have been unable to serve alcohol to customers. With tight cash-flow and overheads reliant upon customer spend, limits such as those seen in Hong Kong have serious impacts for restaurants. This is why those businesses that have pivoted to delivery may still need to stick with their newly updated business models for a while to come. Even once social distancing requirements are lifted, it may take a while for demand to return to normal. Will sitting in a small restaurant, surrounded by tightly packed tables be everyone’s cup of tea?
  • Restaurants are almost certainly going to have to adopt new safety measures in the short term, could this involve checking the temperatures of all customers? Serving food from a socially appropriate distance? Not only will these measures add a layer of complexity, but they may be off-putting for customers. Likewise, many more countries may recommend people wear face masks whilst out in public. What this means for sitting down to a meal in a restaurant, market or even a take-away coffee is uncertain. We’ve already seen re-usable cups being banned in many outlets, something that feels like a set-back from an environmental point of view.
  • Will we see a return of the doorman in restaurants? Supermarket entrances are now flanked by staff to ensure over-crowding doesn’t occur, might the same be needed in bars and restaurants? Re-purposing staff to ensure there is always someone managing the entrance might be a short-term adaptation whilst numbers have to remain limited.
  • From a sustainability perspective, we tend to advocate against anything disposable wherever possible. However disposable menus may need to make a comeback. The health implications of re-usable menus mean that disposable ones might be needed in the short-term. Responsibly sourced, such as FSC, or recycled paper should be used in these cases.

Creativity, adaptability and flexibility will be crucial in the short-run.

Medium-term:

  • Supporting local, smaller businesses has been one way in which many consumers have felt they were able to help somehow in this crisis. Where supermarkets have been overrun, smaller scale producers and suppliers have been able to keep up with demand. If this crisis reminds us of the wealth of produce available on our doorstep and allows us to appreciate those businesses making the effort to source and serve it, that would be a big positive.
  • The coronavirus has left many farms without the workers they need to harvest their crops. Whilst this has coupled with an increase in unemployment in many industries, many farms are struggling to fill these seasonal vacancies before the food spoils. How this situation plays out over the coming months is uncertain but it highlights our dependence on seasonal workers to help get the food we need. Could there be more emphasis in the medium term on working more closely with farms to keep the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables going? Will more businesses choose to grow more of their own produce to try and shore up supplies?
  • Medium term impacts could also be seen in the form of supply chain regulations to simplify our food supply chains, in order to avoid the risk of a repeat. There has been a lot of focus on how the virus likely stemmed from wet markets, where live animals are housed in crowded conditions alongside freshly slaughtered animals. Whilst these wet markets tend to exist mainly in Asia, a spotlight has been shone on global food supply chains due to their complexity. More regulations and stricter enforcement could help improve transparency but could also impact restaurants through their own supply chains and supplier relationships. Patience and understanding will be needed to help embed further regulations, which will no doubt be beneficial in the medium and long term.
  • One consequence of the lockdown has been an increase in people cooking at home. Some restaurants have been quick to notice this and capitalise, realising that whilst many people enjoy cooking, they may lack the skills, specific ingredients or know-how to replicate some of their favourite dishes. At home kits of restaurant favourites may provide a new revenue stream if our eating out habits remain changed for some time to come. There is also an opportunity for restaurants to get creative about how the restaurant experience could be re-created in people’s homes. If restrictions on movement remain in place or get turned ‘on and off’ more regularly, the demand for more Big Nights In might be greater than Big Nights Out. Restaurants can play a part in this.

Long-term:

  • Resilient, low carbon economies are being pushed as the route to recovery post pandemic. Growing calls across Europe for Covid-19 recovery efforts to focus on delivering the EU’s proposed 2050 net zero goal mean than rather than being pushed down the agenda, climate action can actually act as a positive vehicle for economic recovery. Can we expect to see economic incentives to adopt planetary health diet guidelines for instance?
  • Amsterdam has come forward as the first country to embrace the ‘doughnut’ economic model, aiming to allow economic recovery that is in balance with planetary needs. What this will mean for businesses in reality isn’t yet clear, but it does prove that entrenched ideas can be overcome and that large-scale change can happen, something forward facing businesses will welcome.

So whilst there is no way to know for sure what the post-pandemic restaurant scene may look like, there does seem to be an understanding that returning to business as usual isn’t necessarily a desirable outcome. Creativity and adaptability will be at the heart of getting the hospitality industry back on its feet and achieving a post-pandemic dining scene we can all embrace….at an appropriate distance.